The Howard League for Penal Reform

Politics, charities and civil society

Last Sunday the Secretary of State for Justice wrote an article for the Telegraph attacking charities for being politically biased. It was posted and then taken down almost immediately, but I expect it to reappear, as, whilst it is more strident in tone, the article repeats accusations he has made in the past. He is not the only politician to attack charities for being critical of government policies as organisations working on development, hunger, housing, children, disability, poverty and social support have been the focus of a barrage of insults. This represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of civil society in our democracy.

The current government has a Victorian vision of the role of charities. It believes that charities should provide succour to the poor and provide the safety net that the state is increasingly withdrawing from. They should do this silently and refrain from analysing or criticising the policies and practices that create the need in the first place. Should they vocalise concerns this apparently becomes political.

Over the past few months the criticism of the Howard League coming from the Secretary of State for Justice has got more shrill and more personal. I have asked to see correspondence and minutes from his office that name the charity and that name me but so far I have been refused access. I am appealing this refusal with the Information Commissioner.

Today Labour held a ‘summit’ on the crisis in prisons and I was invited to attend. I decided in the end it was not appropriate as the Labour press office sent out a notice pre-empting the discussion by listing the policies the party had already decided on, many of which I think are wrong or trivial. Secondly, the event was branded as so partisan that I felt it was inappropriate for a charity to attend. I meet with Labour MPs, Conservative MPs, LibDems and Plaid, and peers from across the House and am pleased to discuss our research and ideas.

The UK has one of the best developed and most diverse third sectors of any nation state and we should be proud of this. NCVO estimates that the sector employs three quarters of a million people and has a value of £11 billion, contributing significantly to a healthy national economy as well as underpinning a healthy society.

It is naïve to think that organisations who are motivated by public and individual welfare would not want to stem the flow of misery. Catching people as they cascade out of the factory of mistaken policies, which are causing the problems that charities are having to mop up, makes no sense.

There are charities that are muzzled by virtue of their contractual arrangements with government and perhaps this is the vision for the future that is being preferred. Some of the bigger charities rely on all their income coming from government and provide services that hitherto have been undertaken by the public sector. This hobbles them from speaking out and they have become  complicit with government policies. These organisations represent the compliant model that the government would like to see all charities conforming to.

Fortunately these charities are few. Most third sector groups guard their independence fiercely and want to use their research and expertise for the public good. This means speaking out without fear or favour, in the old cliché, it means speaking truth to power.

The Howard League is independent. It relies on funding from a wide variety of donors and we make sure that this continues to be the case so that we are not dependent on any one source. We do not accept government grants. The charity is impartial and non-aligned. We publish our research and as our core charitable objective is public education, we are happy to meet people from all political parties to share our expertise and our experience. We have members of different political parties as members, and our membership is growing rapidly.

Government ministers should be more grown up in taking criticism on the chin. When it is legitimate and well founded criticism governments should review and improve policies. Democracy is founded on learning from debate.

The Howard League will not be defamed by one party or purloined by another. We will not be bullied.

August 13, 2014 · Frances Crook · No Comments
Tags: , , , , ,  · Posted in: Campaigns, Government policy, Howard League, Public Services

It is 50 years since Britain’s last executions

It is extraordinary that it is only 50 years ago that we last hanged people in this country. The country has moved on so much in that time and it is simply not an issue any more. I cannot remember the last time that I was asked to do a media interview about the death penalty and the last vote in Parliament was a couple of decades ago.

The Howard League was founded in 1866, the year of the first Royal Commission on capital punishment that recommended an end to public executions. The charity led the campaign for abolition for the next century. In the job I had before I joined the Howard League, leading campaigns for the British Section of Amnesty International, I was also responsible for its campaign against the death penalty, so it is an issue that I feel strongly about and have worked on for most of my professional life.

Progress can be fragile and whilst it is important to make gains in humane policies, to get them enacted and enforced, that is not enough. It is also important to embed them. That is also the role of voluntary organisations. I am proud that not only was the Howard League the key organisation arguing for abolition for the last part of the nineteenth century and first half of the twentieth, but that we also led the Parliamentary lobbying to make sure that it was not reintroduced.

There were several votes in Parliament in the 1980s and early 1990s. Never was there any doubt that the majority to maintain abolition was under threat, but it was important to make sure that the numbers were overwhelming. It is interesting, as an ironical aside, to note that the only Liberal MP to vote for reintroduction was Cyril Smith.

Alongside our work with MPs we focussed on public education in this country and international campaigns. Abolition of capital punishment is enshrined in the human rights remit of the United Nations. Every single one of 47 countries in the Council of Europe has abolished the death penalty.

It is the anniversary of the state killing of two men, one hanged in Liverpool prison and one in Manchester on 13 August 1964. We must never forget and we must make sure it never, ever happens again.

You can help. The Howard League is building a movement; we have doubled our membership in two years. Members and regular supporters give our campaigns authority and financial independence. There are not many charities left that don’t rely on funding from government, and we are proud to be one of the last ones standing. We will continue to campaign with independence, integrity, authority and for the issues that matter. Join us.

August 12, 2014 · Frances Crook · One Comment
Posted in: Uncategorized

Payment by results has failed and what is coming is a lot worse

The long-anticipated results from the payment by results pilots in Peterborough and Doncaster prisons show that both projects have failed. Peterborough missed its target of reducing reoffending by 10 per cent, and Doncaster did just enough not to lose any money, but not enough to make any.

It is appalling, but not surprising, that Chris Grayling and the Ministry of Justice are attempting to suggest these very underwhelming results support the destruction of the probation service. Firstly, neither of the projects hit the targets the Ministry of Justice itself set, and secondly, the probation reforms bear little resemblance to these pilot projects. Transforming Rehabilitation is very different and a lot worse.

Supervision and support for those released from Peterborough prison after short sentences was funded by substantial additional money through social impact bonds – which is extra investment from the lottery and charitable trusts that could have gone to good causes. The government’s plans are to take money from probation to give it to private companies or consortia to manage people coming out of prison or on community sentences.

Under Transforming Rehabilitation services will need to be provided to at least 50,000 people emerging from short prison sentences but no more money will be available. In the Peterborough project intensive and specialised services were provided by experienced charitable organisations, who still failed to make any significant impact on reoffending, because they were given the impossible task of undoing the damage done by the prison.

The expansion of the scheme nationwide will simply be impossible to achieve without busting the budget.

Furthermore, involvement in the Peterborough project was voluntary. Those leaving the prison after serving short sentences were offered support, advice and help, but didn’t have to take it. Contrastingly, participation in Transforming Rehabilitation will be compulsory and non-compliance will be met with punitive sanctions including further imprisonment. The Ministry of Justice itself estimates that there will be at least 13,000 additional counterproductive and expensive short term prison sentences as a result of the changes.  No wonder they are rushing to build a Titan prison to hold all the extra prisoners.

Increasing the use of short-term prison sentences is the single worst thing you can do if you want to reduce crime. Instead of wasting money trying to undo the damage caused by a short prison sentence, the damage should just not be inflicted in the first place.

Short periods in jail do much more harm than good. Men and women sit in our cramped, violent and filthy prisons for a couple of weeks or months before very often being released into unemployment and homelessness. If the Ministry of Justice invested in robust community sentences and used them instead of short prison sentences, crime rates would plummet and billions of pounds would be saved.

The Transforming Rehabilitation fiasco must be stopped immediately; it will do real damage and cost huge amounts of money. Instead of spending time trying to twist statistics of distantly-related pilot projects to support a reckless privatisation plan, justice ministers should follow the evidence and reduce short term sentences and invest in the community.

August 7, 2014 · Frances Crook · 2 Comments
Tags: , , ,  · Posted in: Government policy, Privatisation, Probation, Public Services, Rehabilitation

Victim impact statements and parole hearings

A very brave family spoke out today about their experience of giving an impact statement at the parole hearing to consider whether the killer of their son could be moved to an open prison. Geraldine and Peter McGinty’s son, Colin, was stabbed and died in 2001. They made public their anguish at making a huge effort to say how they still suffered pain through their loss only to hear the judge say that this statement would have no impact on the decision to be made by the parole board.

I spoke to journalists and did interviews in an attempt to explain how this could happen. My fear is that it will happen many more times in the future but could be even more terrible for victims of serious crime.

The McGinty family gave their testimony by video link but many families will attend the parole hearing. This means travelling, sometimes a long distance, to the prison where the perpetrator is being held. They may get a little bit of advice and support, they may not. They will be ushered into an room where three members of the parole board and various other officials will be sitting. The prisoner will be there too. This could be the first time that they have come face to face with the person who killed their child, burgled their house or attacked them. They may have attended the trial and seen him across the court in the dock, or they may have decided not to attend. So now, they are face to face but unable, indeed not permitted, to speak to him or ask him questions.

The ending of legal aid for prisoners at parole hearings when they are seeking to move to open conditions means that whilst in the past the lawyer would be in the room not the prisoner, now, it has to be the prisoner as he has no representative and he has to hear what is being said about him. This is the cruellest legal aid cut. It is one the Howard League is challenging forcefully by taking judicial review proceedings.

How can this be happening?  Whoever thought this was kind, or helpful to victims?

The answer of course is politicians. For years successive politicians have exploited victims to get a good headline. Instead of making the system supportive and generous to victims, they have used victims only to increase the severity of punishment.  Impact statements are only about using their misery to increase a sentence.  These impact statements were opposed for decades by Victim Support but sadly it has reversed its stance and now without any appreciation of the distress it causes to victims, the organisation is supporting it.

I hope Victim Support will review its support for impact statements at parole hearings. I hope politicians will take care when tempted to exploit victims. We need a system of justice that seeks to heal the harm done by crime, what we have is a system that exacerbates distress.

August 5, 2014 · Frances Crook · 2 Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: Government policy, Victims

How to make a prison safer: It isn’t rocket science

I spent yesterday in a prison that had been identified as one of the worst in the country but in just a few months has been transformed into a much safer and busier place. The questions that need to be asked are twofold: how has this happened and how did a prison deteriorate so that teenagers were terrified to venture out of their filthy cells?

I will identify it so that readers can see the full extent of the dreadful mess the prison was in when the prison inspectors visited. Brinsford is a young offenders institution near Wolverhampton and used to hold around 570 teenagers and young adults aged 18 to 21. The inspection report is excoriating:

“These are the worst overall findings my inspectorate has identified in a single prison during my tenure as Chief Inspector. Across all of our four tests of a healthy prison, we found outcomes to be poor.”

The prison was filthy, the windows rotting, staff resorted to using force to try and keep control, staff sick rate was through the roof, violence was rife, half the boys spent all day locked in cells, courses were cancelled, the litany of failure is industrial.

It has changed. A new governor was parachuted in to sort it out. He got the boys gardening, painting, learning and active. Many of the internal gates have been removed and the workshops opened so that the young men are learning a trade and busy in education. They go to bed at night tired, so staff don’t have to implement the latest crazy missive from the Ministry to turn lights off. Use of force by staff is discouraged.

It’s not a perfect place. I was disappointed with the food as there was no fruit and few vegetables, both essential as a healthy diet for young men.

There are several reasons for the turnaround. The obvious one is a charismatic and determined governor who took time to understand the prison and then acted with courage by dismissing recalcitrant staff and getting everyone else busy. He made difficult decisions.

Secondly, the number of young prisoners has been reduced by 130 and benchmarking has increased the number of staff. This is the bit that isn’t rocket science. At a time when every other prison in the country has had its staff cut by a third, this prison has done the opposite.

When I was visiting, he refused to accept an overcrowding draft from a local prison and the bus was turned back.  The governor pointed out he was responsible for running this prison and overcrowding was beyond his control.

The Howard League published a report on staff cuts and prison overcrowding a couple of weeks ago and since then the independent monitoring board at Nottingham has warned that the prison is likely to see riots because conditions are so dreadful. Prisons across the country are becoming dangerous places for staff and prisoners. As men spill out back into the community they put us at risk of their increased violence. Two people a week are taking their own lives in prison.

The lesson is clear. A prison that is not full, that is well managed and fully staffed can be a clean, busy and safe institution.

So who is responsible for the shambles in the system? It is a difficult question to answer as there is no clear line of accountability any more. Until the creation of the behemoth NOMS there had been a director general of prisons. One person was in charge of the operational managing of 130 or so prisons. We now have a bureaucratic nightmare with ministers interfering in the decision of whether prisoners may have books sent to them or women prisoners can wear black leggings.

The answer is that ministers are responsible. Remember this, when you read that another 18-year-old on remand has taken his own life. Ministers are responsible.

July 23, 2014 · Frances Crook · One Comment
Tags: , , ,  · Posted in: Children and young people, Inside prisons, Overcrowding, Prison officers, Prisons, suicide

Gang injunctions and the Serious Crime Bill

The best thing about the sinister younger siblings of the ASBO, the gang injunctions, is how rarely they are used. The scope and ease of applicability of these injunctions raise serious questions about the infringement of our civil liberties: the legislation specifically states that it is not just about gangs, it is applied to ‘groups’.

There is an important differential here, particularly for children -  if they are in a group that ‘consists of at least three people’ with ‘one or more characteristics that enable its members to be identified by others as a group’ than that brings them within the scope of the legislation. This is clearly not the definition of a gang. Any sensible person would interpret it as how most teenagers congregate and dress in public, or indeed how pensioners congregate and dress in public, but of course the law is discriminatory in its intent.

Gang injunctions can be imposed on children as young as 14. The fact that the legislation exists at all is a fragrant breach of Article 15 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which states that children have the right to meet together and to join groups and organisations.

So it is of utmost concern that the Serious Crime Bill, which is being debated in parliament today, contains provisions to extend the circumstances that gang injunctions can be imposed. Although they’ve been low in use so far, the Howard League’s legal team has represented a young man who was subjected to their horrors.

Sam was 20 when he contacted one of our solicitors. He had never been convicted of a gang related offence. He had been shot. The police imposed an interim gang-injunction on Sam without warning and without representation, claiming it was a ‘protective measure’. The sheer scope of the restrictions on his life were astonishing: he could not enter his home town – meaning he was effectively made homeless as he lived with his Mum there; he could not see, contact or even ring his partner, so he couldn’t see his son unless the child was in the care of someone else; and he was banned from contacting the majority of his friends. During this time Sam had the constant threat that even though he had done nothing wrong, if he breached any of these requirements he could be sent to prison.

As the police can impose interim gang injunctions without the authority of the court, it was a year before it was finally decided that the interim injunction on Sam was not appropriate or lawful. This was a year of a young man’s life.

Serious crime bills should tackle serious crime. Human trafficking, organised gun crime and female genital mutilation are scourges on an international scale. They are serious crimes. The unnecessary criminalisation of children and young people has no place in this bill and no place in our society.

June 16, 2014 · Frances Crook · No Comments
Tags:  · Posted in: anti-social behaviour, Children and young people, Government policy, Human rights, Uncategorized

How do you solve a problem like G4S and Serco?

A couple of weeks ago we handed in a dossier to the City of London Police and Metropolitan Police that listed the failures by G4S and Serco in delivering justice services. We asked them to assist the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) in its ongoing investigation and called for both companies to be barred from bidding for any public service contracts until the completion of the inquiry.

Today, as shareholders gather for G4S’s annual general meeting, I can confirm I have had responses from both the Met and the City of London Police.

The senior investigating officer from the City of London Police very helpfully explained its predicament. The force is already investigating potential criminal activity by Serco relating to the delivery of prisoners to the courts. The SFO has teams of accountants that are qualified to look into possible fraud by both Serco and G4S. Both police and the SFO have to achieve a high level of proof in order to bring criminal charges. I was told that our dossier was primarily a catalogue of incompetence.

I am not so sure it is just incompetence. It seems to me that a dossier of 70 pages listing hundreds of instances of failures indicates more than incompetence. Could it be deliberate?

The reason people do things guides the way they do things. More than that, motivation is the moral compass.

The private companies that take on government contracts to deliver justice services are doing it to make money; their prime consideration is the pursuit of profit. The evidence points to practices aimed at maximising profits by cutting corners, paying low wages, stinting on training, employing too few staff, not sharing good practice with public agencies, buying cheap equipment.

The result has been years of poor delivery and incompetence. But more than this. I would argue that providing a poor service on the cheap because the company wants to increase its profits at the expense of the taxpayer and the service user amounts to criminality, whether or not it hits the courts’ required threshold.

We put together the dossier as it shows a pattern of behaviour with the tip of the iceberg possibly amounting to deliberate fraud.  This must change. We must not allow public services to sink to such dire levels in the name of profit.  The taxpayer and the citizen deserve the best.

It appears that governments will continue to commission out public services to companies whose aim is profit, in which case, we must build in higher moral expectations. I don’t know how to do this with G4S or Serco, any ideas?

June 5, 2014 · Frances Crook · 5 Comments
Tags: , , , ,  · Posted in: Government policy, Privatisation

Judicial review reform debate in the Lords

Lord Pannick, the eminent barrister and cross-bench peer, has laid a motion of regret in relation to the Civil Legal Aid (Remuneration) (Amendment) (No. 3) Regulations 2014 which means there is to be a debate in the House of Lords on 7 May.

The Howard League for Penal Reform is extremely concerned about the impact of these changes on vulnerable people, including serving prisoners and people coming to the end of their sentences facing resettlement. Our legal team has helped hundreds of children and young people in prison to make fresh starts and prevent the creation of further victims. We have had to use judicial review in some cases in order to force authorities to provide the support these people need so they can reintegrate safely.

The changes mean that lawyers are now required to do substantial work without any guarantee of payment until their argument is ‘permitted’ by a High Court judge.

The chilling effect of these changes will not just affect individuals in need of help but will impact on the development of case law. For instance, it is doubtful that the landmark case of G v Southwark would have reached the House of Lords had these changes been in force. G, a child recently released from prison and sleeping rough in a car, called our helpline and we referred him to solicitors who brought judicial review proceedings. Permission was not granted in the High Court but the case progressed to the House of Lords where Baroness Hale gave a powerful judgment that has resulted in a sea-change in the way local authorities are required to help all homeless children, not just those released from custody. The case has saved time, money and children’s lives. It has significantly reduced the need for us to issue proceedings in similar cases.

The need for judicial review as a safety net of last resort has become even more important for prisoners since December 2013 when the Lord Chancellor removed almost all prison law from the reach of legal aid. Part of his justification for doing so was the continuing availability of judicial review (see The Gazette, 17 March 2014).

These changes to payment for judicial review, recently examined by Parliament’s expert Human Rights Committee, will have “a significant impact on access to justice because meritorious judicial review cases will not be brought” (paragraph 76 of The implications for access to justice of the Government’s proposals to reform judicial review, JCHR, 30 April 2014).

Lord Pannick’s debate is the only opportunity for peers to express their concern about these changes which affect the accessibility of judicial review, described by the Committee as ‘one of the most important means by which the Government and other public bodies are held legally accountable for the lawfulness of their decisions’ (paragraph 12).

The Committee concluded that “the significance of the measure’s implications for the right of effective access to court is such that it should have been brought forward in primary legislation, to give both Houses an opportunity to scrutinise and debate the measure in full and to amend it if necessary”. It recommended that the Government withdraw the regulations it has laid to give effect to its proposal, and introduce instead an amendment to the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill to provide Parliament a proper opportunity to consider and debate in detail this controversial measure (see paragraphs 80 and 81 of the JCHR report). The Parliamentary committee responsible for scrutinizing secondary legislation has also considered these regulations and raised similar concerns. Our submission to that committee is available here.

The need for Parliament to scrutinize these measures as fully as possible is underscored by the fact that they emanate from the Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary. As the Committee recognised, until the conflation of roles of Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary has been reviewed, it is vital that the Lord Chancellor “always demonstrates his awareness of the conflict inherent in his dual roles as a political minister and as the head of the judiciary with a constitutional responsibility for upholding the rule of law”. The Howard League recognises the difficulties that the Lord Chancellor faces in demonstrating this awareness when implementing important constitutional changes through secondary legislation.

As Lord Brown commented in Lord Pannick’s debate on prison law cuts in January 2014, prisoners, “as members of a closed community uniquely subject to the exercise of highly coercive powers, far from having fewer rights of recourse to independent courts than most of us, should, rather, have at the very least equal access to justice”.

May 6, 2014 · Frances Crook · No Comments
Tags:  · Posted in: Government policy, Human rights

Prisoners and books

The campaign to overturn the ban on books and others essentials being sent in to prisoners is gathering momentum. Today Kevin Brennan MP has a debate in Parliament and musicians, led by Billy Bragg, have called for an end to the ban on sending in guitars.

The Howard League has been consulting its prisoner members to find out what the real impact of the ban and the introduction of the new incentives scheme means on the ground. Their letters make for interesting, and sometimes bizarre reading.

In one semi-open prison the library used to be open all day but is now only open Monday to Thursday from 5.15 to 6pm, and these sessions are often cancelled if the prisoners who have been trained to run the library get called to do something else or there are insufficient numbers of staff to escort them across the establishment.

In another prison there are two libraries because vulnerable prisoners cannot share the facilities with other prisoners. This means that the book allocation is split between two sites and there are only half the books in each.

A poignant criticism comes from a prisoner who used to have clothes and underwear sent to him. Now that he has to buy his underwear from a monopoly shop that charges inflated prices, his family has to send in extra money to pay for these expensive clothes. Whereas they used to be able to buy pants from cheaper shops to send to dad, they now have to send in cash from their benefits so he can have a new pair of socks.

One prisoner said his mother used to send him a copy of his local paper so he could keep in touch with his community but he is not allowed to receive it any more.

Prisoners who are not young or within a narrow size range cannot get clothes that fit. So if men are on the larger size, they have to wear trousers that don’t do up or come up round the waist and T-shirts that don’t cover their tummies. People are given slippers as they can’t get shoes to fit. This means that grown men are slopping about in shabby clothes and slippers.

The rules are bizarre. You can’t have the original version of the DVD Get Carter because it was an 18 in 1971, but the remake from 2000, which is far more violent, was given an R rating.

The Howard League will continue its campaign to get the ban on sending in books and other essentials to prisoners. Tomorrow a devastating critique of the impact of cuts and overcrowding will be published that underscores our contention that prisons are so stretched that people are dying as result. It is often the straw that breaks the camel’s back, and I am warning the Government that things are going to get worse if it doesn’t change its policies.

April 29, 2014 · Frances Crook · One Comment
Posted in: Government policy, Prisons

Why it’s wrong to close secure children’s homes

The network of secure children’s homes (SCHs) yesterday published a review that shows how it achieves safer outcomes for the most damaged children than prisons or private training centres. We still lock up far too many children but for the few who are genuinely so troubled and troubling that safe custody is the only option and in their best interests, then secure children’s homes are the answer. Prison is no place for children. The G4S and Serco run training centres have a disastrous track record. Yet, the Youth Justice Board has withdrawn contracts from the secure children’s homes forcing many to close down.

The SCHs provide a safe environment with properly trained staff in high ratios and use ‘pro-social modelling’ techniques and enhanced education opportunities. The report shows that young people leave an SCH with a rise in attainment of 3.8 points in Maths and 3.2 points in English (the equivalent of over 0.5 National Curriculum levels); a year in reading age; a better relationship with learning and education; higher self-esteem in their ability; and an identity as a learner.

The government’s plans to build a Titan jail for children is a mistake for many reasons, one of which is that it concentrates entirely on education. As a former teacher I am committed to providing education, but the children need to have their mental health needs addressed, physical health improved, support for their emotional wellbeing and self-esteem, their learning and physical impairments addressed and help with fostering empathy and remorse. This is a complex pattern of services that must be delivered in a stable and safe environment with staff who are trained, skilled and who will stay the course.

In crude reoffending rates, the SCHs are twice as effective as both prisons and private centres with an average rate of reoffending lower at 43 per cent compared to 76 per cent.

Rather than having a regime and targets, the SCHs are child-centred with the young person’s well-being at the centre.
The contrast to prisons and private training centres is stark. The SCHs may be a little more expensive, but as they work, isn’t it worth it?

April 29, 2014 · Frances Crook · No Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: Children and young people